Essential Traits that Modern C-Suiters need to Flourish

by | Apr 5

11 min read

Whether you call them skills, traits or talents, there’s no doubt that modern C-Suite executives need them more than ever in today’s lightning-speed business world.

Long gone are the days when CEO’s and other top execs can rely mostly on industry experience and expertise or financial know-how or hold almost total authority, aided by a small, trusted team. 

The new workplace world is almost unrecognisable, fast-tracked by globalisation, generational expectations, economic pressures, unprecedented digital and technological advances, complex cultural change and political shifts, to name a few.

So, how then, can today’s C-Suite executives ensure they have the resilience, creativity and nimble mindset to not only face, but flourish? For starters, realise if you are not evolving, you’re in trouble, asserts Johnny Taylor, CEO and President of the Society for Human Resource Management.

Quoted in an online article by the SHRM Executive Network, Taylor comments when talking to a leader who says, ‘I’ve been doing the same thing for 20 years and it’s worked,’ he thinks, ‘You’re already behind.’ 

With numerous blogs and articles on essential leadership traits, how do you know which are the most critical ones you’ll need as a C-Suiter to meet today’s business challenges? Firstly, ditch the notion that simply having confidence, charm, a terrific track record or an imposing conventional pedigree will suffice.

Heat on C-Level Teams

Moreover, consider research on current C-Suite models by Ernst and Young (EY) which emphasises, “C-Suites need to be more agile, less hierarchical and considerate of a broader set of stakeholders to deliver growth in the face of new business imperatives.”

Gil Forer, EY Global Markets Digital and Business Disruption Leader remarks ‘the heat is on CEOs and their C-level teams.’

EYs 2019 CEO Imperative Study – based on interviews of 200 global CEOs, 100 independent directors from Forbes Global 2000 and Forbes Largest Private Companies, and 100 global senior institutional investors – found two thirds of CEOs, board directors and institutional investors concluded ‘the legacy C-Suite model is not well-suited to the imperatives of the next decade.’ 

In addition, remarks John de Yonge, Director, Global Insights at EY’s Research Institute, survey participants envisioning the next five to 10 years identified a critical group of new C-Suite capabilities to ensure continued growth. The most important of these are ‘digital transformation, artificial intelligence, innovation, data science and behavioural science.’ And with an increasing focus on behavioural science – to help human-centric organisations improve product approval and customer experience – there’s a clear demand for expertise in several other fields not previously part of C-Suiters’ expected competencies.

This trend is echoed by Raffaella Sadun, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and fellow researcher Charles E. Wilson in a 2022 Harvard Business Review (HBR) article. Their 10-year research project, which investigated almost 7,000 job descriptions for C-Suite roles, found companies really want leaders with strong social skills – people who are ‘adept communicators, relationship builders and people-oriented problem solvers.’  

Billionaire business entrepreneur and founder of the massive Virgin global conglomerate, Sir Richard Branson believes “Communication is the most important skill any leader can possess.” 

The importance of good social skills for the C-Suite is highlighted in another HBR article, which analysed data from leading global executive-search company Russell Reynolds Associates. Psychologists describe social skills as the ability to listen and communicate well, having a high level of self-awareness and engaging effectively with different groups and types of people. 

HBR accessed nearly 5,000 senior-executive job descriptions developed from 2000 to 2017 with its clients, which it used to study expectations for CEOs, chief financial officers, chief information officers, chief marketing officers and human resources heads. It found that companies have significantly redefined the roles of C-Suite executives over the past twenty years. And while expertise in operations, administration and financial resources is still very relevant, solid social skills is the one capability today’s companies prioritise when searching for top leaders, especially CEOs.  

The HBR’s analysis also highlighted the importance of social skills in environments where productivity centres on effective communication, which is especially evident in large firms that are skill-intensive and more complex. 

Critical Business Behaviours 

As the stakes get increasingly higher in a rapidly developing global environment, business leaders need to self-introspect and assess their C-Suite team for those all-important future-fit traits.  According to Leading Edge Coaching and Consulting (Le) the biggest C-Suite management challenges often revolve around achieving balance among prioritisation in leading through uncertainty and navigating interpersonal relationships.” Thus, it’s not surprising that more C-Suiters face challenges such as: 

  • Leading decision-making and driving change initiatives
  • Delivering results sustainably and consistently
  • Building strong implementation teams 
  • Confidently identifying and responding to market challenges and opportunities
  • Developing strategies and vision
  • Deepening alignment and engagement through the organisation 

G. H. Smart & Company’s CEO Genome Project identifies four critical behaviours that CEOs and all C-suiters need to succeed in today’s business world. The company uses these behaviours in a self-assessment quiz that can help C-Suiters discover and rate their strengths, which also take into account an individual’s fundamental skills and assets to determine their effectiveness during: 

  1. Rapid and convincing decision-making
  2. Engaging for impact – aiming to understand stakeholders’ priorities and aligning them around value creation goals
  3. Adapting proactively – treating mistakes as learning opportunities and focusing on the long term
  4. Delivering reliable results

Writing in a 2022 (CDP) article, Brian Carlson, Founder and CEO of RoC Consulting comments that ‘with a flattening of modern organisations and no hierarchical structure,’ top-down directorial leadership styles are becoming obsolete. 

“Executives must expand their traditional skill sets to stay competitive and able to execute in a more collaborative and data-driven capacity,” says Carlson, adding they must also tap into a broader range of both hard and soft people-oriented skills like emotional intelligence. This, he remarks, will enable executives to build a team collaboratively across different locations and ‘win in a world where adaptability is key to success.’ Moreover, C-Suiters need to develop their technology and data skills and ‘ensure plans are anchored in digital-first and digitally-centric behaviors.’

Some of the most important must-have skills or traits modern C-Suite executives need are: 

Adaptability and flexibility

With unpredictability and uncertainty being the new global norm, being flexible means being able to pivot quickly. While being adaptive and flexible partly entail process and culture, Carlson stresses these must be supported by ‘more modern technology solutions’ that can enhance their business. 

Technological literacy

Modern CEOs need trustworthy technology leadership and some level of business insight in their Chief Information Officer (CIO) or Chief Data Officer (CDO) to bridge the tech-business gap when conversing. So, while a CEO doesn’t need to have the same tech expertise as a CIO, it’s vital to have a good grasp of key technologies like automation platforms, critical data management and artificial intelligence (AI). That way, C-Suiters can deploy the most appropriate technology solutions for their business. 

Agile mindset

Enabling yourself and your C-suite team to make key decisions as well as plan and implement business strategies quickly is an essential aspect of having an agile mindset.  But you also need the right tools for organising, planning and executing. Fortunately, with the development of agile technology 20 years ago to streamline more collaborative software development processes, developers can now track and manage projects using packages like Azure DevOps (which develops software applications from start to finish), and Jira (a project management tool).

Embrace data-driven strategies

With an estimated 2.5 quintillion bytes of data produced every day, it is one of your company’s most valuable resources. That’s why it’s critical for C-Suiters to embrace data-driven processes and strategies by focusing on centralised data management (CDM). It’s worth investing in a central data processing system or stand-alone package that offers more advanced visualisations and data analytics. Major benefits of consolidating your data into a central location are that it provides assurance, accuracy and reliability in one single source of truth. This system facilitates decision-making by providing the required data and helping you assimilate it.

Emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence (EI) is defined as the ability to perceive, interpret, demonstrate, control, evaluate, and use emotions to communicate with and relate to others effectively. As a so-called ‘soft skill,’ critical EI elements include empowering employees, recognising and understanding their emotions and needs and enhancing collaboration with your C-Suite team members. The importance of emotional intelligence cannot be understated. Leadership consultants Odgers Berndtson believe that C-suite executives need to be experts in self-management, adding, “EI is critical for leaders who aspire to unite, motivate and align others. And in today’s world, it has never been more crucial.”

Perpetual learning 

Good leaders are continuous learners and always want to know more, according to accredited online business management institution Walden University. It recommends that senior execs should focus on putting education first, whether this entails doing a management degree, an online leadership development course with a reputable institution or learning more about other roles, departments and company processes. One of the world’s most influential tech executives and self-made billionaire Sheryl Sandberg knows the value of learning. As former COO of Meta Platforms, she says, “The ability to learn is the most important quality a leader can have.” 

Keep an open mind 

Another vital leadership trait is being open-minded by remaining approachable and receptive to new ideas. Open-minded leaders know the importance of adjusting to constantly shifting environments, so instead of resisting change they take in new information and are willing to consider opinions that differ from their own views. As Silicon Valley investor and CEO of VC Lab Adeo Ressi says, “the more open-minded you are, the more you see the world as it actually is.” 

Communicate clearly 

In the words of Albert Einstein, “The leader is one who, out of the clutter, brings simplicity … out of discord, harmony … and out of difficulty, opportunity.” So, whether you are writing an email, managing a group discussion, addressing business media, closing an important deal or providing face-to-face feedback with a fellow C-suiter or employee, good communication is a crucial skill to master. Communicating with others in a direct, concise and purposeful way not only helps to foster good interpersonal relationships, but also makes it easier to identify and solve issues and facilitate information exchange. 

Strategic thinker

According to McKinsey & Company, a successful leader is able to think critically and strategically about the company’s goals and objectives. They are adept at identifying opportunities and threats and adjust their strategy accordingly. 

Visionary approach

Top senior executives have a clear and compelling vision for their company’s future. They are able to inspire and motivate others to share in that vision and work towards achieving it. 

The good news for C-Suite executives is that it is possible to learn or develop most of these crucial traits with the help of reputable online resources and leadership development training programmes. In this fast-paced, technology-driven world, finetuning your ability to make thoughtful yet effective decisions, thinking fast, being flexible and remaining aligned to your vision and strategies will go a long way in helping you stand out as a capable, future-fit leader.

Further Reading
Recommended Resources
  • The CEO Genome Project features a self-assessment quiz to helps discover and rate your strengths. Access it here:  
  • Odgers Berndtson gives valuable advice and downloadable guides to C-Suiters wanting to leverage critical new leadership traits on their website. View here: 
  • The European Academy for Executive Education offers a free Emotional Intelligence Test. Find the psychological EI test at this link:
  • Walden University’s School of Lifelong Learning offers a self-paced professional development learning programme. The Meeting the Leadership Challenge consists of seven micro-courses that allows you to discover individual leadership strengths and learn techniques to develop leadership qualities.
  2. to-reflect-the-changing-times

Hot Jobs at
Executive Placements


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *